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Making medical theatre

Petra Duncan trains actors to become simulated patients.


In the past few years, Petra Duncan has struggled with everything from schizophrenia to diabetes to Parkinson’s disease, and has broken every bone in her body. No, she’s not extremely unlucky – Ms. Duncan is a standardized patient educator who recruits and trains individuals to act as simulated patients, also called “standardized” patients, on behalf of the University of Alberta’s health sciences council.

With a theatre background and after many years as a volunteer SP, Ms. Duncan stepped full-time into her role three years ago. Today she has more than 300 patients on her roster, including both professional actors and amateurs (SPs are paid for their work).

Most, if not all, universities in Canada with medical and nursing faculties use standardized patients to prepare students for real-life clinical experiences. According to a University of Toronto website, the idea of the SP was conceived in the 1960s and first appeared in Canada at McMaster University.

Ms. Duncan not only hires SPs but also helps them to create scripts and simulated patient scenarios. SPs follow the same script to ensure that student trainees receive a uniform experience – hence the term standardized. SP training includes such skills as how to accurately portray a particular condition or how to react emotionally when given a diagnosis.

Ms. Duncan says SPs often tell her that the experience helps them to deal with their own doctors. “Standardized patients will tell me they’ve learned to look at the medical system differently, to ask questions,” she says. However, Ms. Duncan is careful to counsel SPs to leave their work behind when they finish, as the roles can be emotionally taxing.

Although coordinating and training the SPs takes up most of her time, Ms. Duncan still enjoys filling in when necessary. “I don’t do as many roles anymore but I do jump in if someone is sick or if there’s a role that doesn’t have someone trained for it. I love it,” she says.

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